The first thing he can remember, when he sets his mind to it and thinks back, is of chasing a cat across a blue patterned carpet. It’s not his house, because the carpet there is green, and the people chucking at his toddler antics aren’t his parents because they’re the wrong colors.
People come in colors, he’s always known this. It’s clear to him that some are scarlet, some show hints of deep, ocean blue, and some resonate a pale aubergine. As a child, he poured over paint samples, books of color, the thesaurus, so that he would be able to name people when he came across them. But for all his exacting research, Ronald was brown. Not sienna, not chocolate, not tan, not russet, not desert rock, but simply brown. He was quiet, unremarkable, solid and buried underneath these levels of stoicism, filled with a deep richness.
Ronald had fallen into money completely by accident. He deserved it, but felt a guilty about having more than he’d earned though his own sweat. He took half the money and bought Meg a fur coat and a diamond ring. He left the coat spread across the bed, and put the ring in the kitchen window above the sink where it would catch the light. Then he left for the assembly line like any other morning. He left no note.
Meg was a robins-egg blue, the color of spring, of a Tiffany box she’d never afford the contents of, of the lamp that stood on Eth’s desk in college. She was understatedly cheerful, accepting, and a bit distant. She was a good mother but might have made a better investment banker, had that been an option open to her. As things stood, Meg kept a clean house, a militantly organized garden, a large collection of hand knit sweaters, and ran the local PTA with a velvet gloved iron fist.
Meg came across the ring as she was washing the breakfast dishes. She tried it on, and admired the prisms it threw across her rough hands and worn shirt. Slowly, she made her way across the house, through an empty hallway, a living room cluttered with the things of boys, into the small master bedroom. Halfway across the room she noticed the coat. Carefully, she pulled her jewelry box out from under the bed, and laid the ring between her mother’s pearls and the macaroni necklace that Thomas had made in kindergarten. Through her tears, she wrapped the coat in clean paper and hung it in the back of the narrow closet. She never mentioned either of the gifts, nor did she wear them, but that night for dinner, she made brisket. Ronald passed her the salt before she remembered to ask for it.
They were unremarkable people, Meg and Ronald, but they were complete. Without words, they knew where they stood, in the world and in each other’s eyes. They didn’t speak often. They had a fairy tale life, just a quiet one. Not everyone needs the golden sparkle of happily-ever-after to be fulfilled, for them, the muted tones of blue-on-brown were enough. They raised their three boys into good men, and were content with quiet lives.
The brothers Mitchell were not muted. They demanded adventure, intrigue, princesses to rescue. They were crimson, bottle green, soft yellow. They radiated color into their parents’ lives, and though it confused them, Meg and Ronald loved the lights of their children.
The oldest son was Matthew, for his grandfather. Ronald was always a bit nervous around his father-in-law. Matthew the elder was a loud man who ruled his family like the police station he refused to retire from. It had taken Ronald a full three months to work up the courage to ask for Meg’s hand in marriage, and when he had, Matthew had declared he’d “consider it.” Ronald hasn’t forgotten that he never really said yes, and vaguely in the back of his head he worries that someday Matthew will demand his daughter back. His eldest grandson was a ringleader. Any broken window, bloody nose or sandlot baseball game was Matt’s instigation.
Thomas was the youngest. He had been named for Thomas Jefferson, whose cherry trees had been in blossom when Meg and Ronald had visited on their honeymoon. They had both been impressed by the delicate pink dominating a landscape, though all either one of them ever said about it afterwards was that it had been “quite a sight.” Thomas humored Matt’s endless demands for a game of catch, but got more out of learning how to throw a curve ball than Matt’s trademark fastball. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge, but to the dismay of his parents, never reflected this in his grades.
Kenneth, the middle child, saw colors everywhere. His name came from “Kenneth Wainright, police officer extraordinaire” the hero of a nighttime drama on television. His parents had admired the forthright way that the fictitious hero had dealt with the seedy criminal underbelly of Chicago, and named him accordingly. He played pick up games of basketball with Matt and helped Tom build rockets that sometimes flew, but didn’t have any grand passion of his own. When asked, he shrug and point out he had his whole life to figure it out.
The boys grew, solid strong and brave, and not many people in this world would have had cause to complain about the life the five of them lead in the house under the maple trees. Until the autumn when Meg quietly died.
Meg knew she had cancer. She had noticed her lack of coordination washing dishes: a glass had slipped through hands she thought were steady, and shattered on the counter top. When she tried to pick up the pieces, they fell through her fingers, and as she watched the lines of blood trace their way across her palms, she knew.
She went to the family doctor one sunny afternoon, when everyone was gone. Quietly, but with conviction, she made her case, and after a long battery of tests the doctor reluctantly concurred. Cancer.
In the brain, metastasized to her spine, her lymph nodes, her liver. The doctor remembered, as she put on her coat, that the first time he’d seen her, she’d been two months pregnant with Matt. She had been glowing, radiant, and now, he could watch the light flicker in her. She was very nearly gone already. His voice broke as he told her that the only thing he could do for her would be to assure her that the end would be swift.
Meg went home with the doctor’s reports in hand, and wondered if she could burn them on the kitchen stove. Maybe if the reports were gone, she could ignore the trembling of her hands, her eyes refusal to focus. Through the blur of tears, she wandered into the bedroom and pulled out the fur coat. It was just as perfect as it had been twenty years ago, when Ronald had first brought it home. She pulled it around her, the pelts warming with contact, and fell asleep on the bed.
She never woke up.
Once upon a time, as these stories go, there was a kingdom near the sea. As one might expect, it was an idyllic place, filled with strong men and women, and was ruled by a good man. His name was Ronald.
As one might expect, he was a mediocre sort of ruler. He had not led armies to great victory, but neither had he killed them off in foolish battles. He led his people with as much fairness and justice as he could manage, and the people of the land by the sea respected him for it.
He was a simple man, despite being king. He married his nursemaids daughter, a plain girl who grew up to be a plainer woman. They lived together in the back wing of the palace, mostly happy but for a lingering feeling that they had somehow wandered into the wrong house and everyone was too polite to mention it.
They had three children, all boys. They were rambunctious boys, and every one was better fit to rule than his parents. The eldest was a scholar, learning and knowing and finding out. The youngest was born a general, organizing and strategizing and planning for every eventuality. The middle child wasn’t, yet, anything of distinction but would be when he set his mind to it.
Time passed, as time is wont to do, and the boys grew to men. The kingdom by the sea flourished, and the only complaint was about the smaller than average wheat harvest. Until the Queen took ill. She died early in the morning, caught up in an illness that snuck up so slowly and quietly no one noticed it was there.
Without his queen, Ronald began to wither away. Physicians were brought in from near and far. “His heart is broken,” they said. “There isn’t much we can do for that.”
The princes, who loved their father, were frantic. They called for more physicians, they spoke to every wise woman they could find. They stayed as close to the palace as they could, for fear that if he ever left their sight, they wouldn’t see him again. They sat up with him though the night, and searched for something, anything, that could cure him.
The eldest prince read tome after tome, hoping the ancients had some cure for heartbreak. Late one night, while sitting with his father, he came across a dusty scroll. It had been misshelved in the palace library, and instead of the folklore wing where it belonged; it had ended up mixed with the medical books. The eldest prince began reading before he realized that it was mistakenly placed in his pile of books. Soon, he forgot that it wasn’t a medical book, for it contained a tale about the water of life. The water of life could cure any illness the scroll told, if only it could be found.
The eldest prince turned to his father, who was not asleep. “This may be a cure,” he said. “it won’t be easy to find, but I will, try.”
“No,” said Ronald, “I would rather die. You don’t need to risk your life to save mine. Let me be.”
But sons can be persuasive. And in the course of the night Ronald gave his permission. And his eldest son left at dawn thinking of the knowledge he would gain by finding this miraculous cure.
His journey was swift and comfortable. He traveled with an entourage of swift carriages, and they made good distance. In a week they were in the kingdom across the mountains, where the water of life was rumored to be hidden.
At the foot of the mountains, he left his companions. “I must do this alone,” he told them, but what he was really saying was “This knowledge will be mine and mine alone. You are not to know.”
The mountains in those parts were unlike other mountains. The waters of life had been flowing through them so long that they could almost speak. Certainly they could hear the thoughts of the eldest prince. This is not how things should be, they whispered though the branches and boughs of the trees on their sides. He does not have a heart full of life, the streams murmured.
The eldest prince followed the scroll’s directions, but when the mountains are against you, maps are of little use. Soon he found himself in a narrow ravine, through the notch, he could see a splendid golden fountain. “At last!” He thought to himself, “I have found the fountain!”
But as he spurred his horse forward, the canyon walls began to close in, until he was stuck, and could move neither forwards nor backwards. And there he sat, trapped between two mountains.
Meanwhile, King Ronald was growing weaker. He had forgotten his conversation about the water of life, and when his people asked where the prince had gone, he had no answer for them. The people began to wonder about their king. “Well yes, the Queen’s gone” they whispered. “But that doesn’t mean he can just forget his children.”
The remaining two princes saw the unrest of their people, and searched for an answer even more earnestly. They had to save their father and their country both, and they had to do it soon.
The youngest prince paced. He hoped that he could pace his way to an answer. He was a man of action, and there was little action to be had watching the sick. Suddenly, one of his men burst in. “Sir” he saluted smartly, “There’s an old captain here who says he has some information. Would you like to see him?”
“Send him in,” the prince declared tiredly.
In came an old, old man. He told a story about one of his youthful campaigns, where after a long battle a man had stepped among the wounded and healed them all. The mysterious man claimed he had found the water of life in the high mountains. The prince thanked the captain for bringing his story, paid him handsomely, and went to visit his father.
He told his father what the captain had told him, and Ronald shook his head. “No. If I am to die, I don’t wish the deaths of my sons along with me. Let me be at peace.”
But sons can be persuasive, and the king was weak. Before noon, his will had been worn away, and he gave his permission. And the youngest son departed, thinking of the unstoppable fighting force he would soon have at his side.
He traveled swiftly, for he was a soldier, and needed little comfort. His regiment shone like the sun and traveled like the wind, and in three days, he had reached the kingdom across the mountains.
He left his men in the foothills of the mountain. “I don’t want to ask you to risk your lives for my quest,” he said. But what he meant was “With this water my troops will never die! I do not trust you with it.”
He followed the vague directions he had gotten from the old captain as best he could. But the mountains heard his thoughts, and whispered to one another. He is not in love with living, they whispered to one another, He is too caught up in power.
The prince valiantly hacked his way though trees and brambles. He fought his way though the forest, as he fought his way though life, but the forest didn’t let him though. Soon he came to a place where he couldn’t move his arm forward or backward, and there he was trapped.
Meanwhile, the middle son, who excelled at nothing, at least not yet, was trying to wheedle answers out of his father. “Could you at least give me some idea?” he queried. “I’m just asking because I know they wouldn’t leave with out telling you to hold on until they got back, but if I knew a little more, I could be more reassuring.”
Ronald turned his head away. He didn’t remember either of the conversations about the water of life. He was tired, and his sons wouldn’t leave him alone.
The middle prince sighed. He was to make a proclamation to the people of the kingdom by the sea that day, and he didn’t know what he could offer them beyond vague platitudes of hope. He knew that they would be suspicious, but what else he could he do?
A faint call from his father stopped him before he left the room. “They’ve gone after the water of life,” Ronald said. “I told them not to, but they wouldn’t listen. You won’t listen either, but I remembered, and I thought you ought to know.”
The middle prince came back and sat at his father’s side. “Why didn’t you want them to go?” he asked. He knew Ronald to be a wise man, and his reasons were usually worth listening to.
“I am an old man,” Ronald said simply. “I have led a full life, and now, I am ready to die. You are young, and I imagine it is hard for you to believe that I am finished living, but please try to understand.”
At this the prince sighed. Damn his father with these seemingly reasonable requests. “What would you have me do?”
Ronald smiled. “I would have you find your brothers, and bring them home, so that I can die with my family beside me.”
And so the middle prince set off to find his brothers. He traveled as quickly as he could, and in ten days, he had reached the kingdom over the mountains. He and his horse traveled carefully across the mountains searching for his brothers.
Hum, the mountains grumbled. This is a heart filled with compassion, babbled the stream. He might well do, the leaves rustled. The mountains turned his feet to treacherous terrain, and the prince traveled on cautiously, looking for his brothers. Over fields of rocks, narrow canyons and thick jungles of trees the prince journeyed, calling for his brothers.
Hum, the mountains whispered to the streams, he hasn’t given up yet. True enough, the branches creaked, he’s earned his passage to the palace. The mountains were wise in many ways, but people who came to them before were looking only for the water of life. The mountains had learned to judge what was in the hearts of the travelers, but not the motives and reasons that drove them. Because of this, they guided the prince to the water of life and not towards his brothers.
On the third day of his searching, the prince came to a grand house nestled at the base of a cliff. Hoping for some information on his brothers, he dismounted and knocked on the door.
After a moment, a gnarled old woman opened it a crack and stuck her head out. “Well?” she asked impatiently. “What do you want that’s so important first thing in the morning?”
The prince was slightly taken aback, as he had knocked quite politely and the day was reaching noon. “Excuse me if I have offended,” he said. “I am looking for my brothers who are questing in these woods, and I was hoping they might have come here, or that you would know where I could search for them.”
The woman glared up at him. “They certainly didn’t make it this far,” she groused. “And you can search for them wherever you please, it makes no difference to me.” With that last bit of helpful advice, she slammed the door.
Shocked, the prince stared at the door. He knew that he had lived a life of privileged entitlement, but this seemed beyond any boundaries of politeness. Disappointed at this.. lukewarm greeting, he turned his horse to the east, in hopes that this house was the first of a settlement, hopefully one with some more helpful.